Never one to back down from a challenge — even as a nine-year-old being tested by his mother — Stephon Morris was determined to prove to his mom, Cynthia he could cook.
Maybe she was a bit wary, Stephon had barely managed a stove-top fire on an earlier attempt.
“He almost burned the house down boiling hot dogs,” Roman Morris, Stephon’s dad, said.
Nevertheless, Morris was nearly flawless on the next try. His homemade macaroni and cheese with baked chicken and a side of greens was, by his admission and his folks’, pretty tasty.
“Ever since then I’ve had a passion for it,” Morris, who has graduated to more complex dishes since, said.
Coooking is the Penn State cornerback’s second passion. Football comes first. Today, Morris will take the field for the fourth-straight time as a defensive starter for Ted Roof’s defense.
His role is defined. He’ll be relied upon to help shut down the Temple passing attack. He’ll be expected to lead his younger teammates. Morris hasn’t had this clear of a job description since he arrived on campus in 2009.
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An ankle injury suffered in Week 1 is old news and Stephon Morris casually dismisses it inside the players’ lounge at Penn State’s practice facility.
“I feel really good,” Morris says. There’s no question whether or not he’ll start against the Owls.
It’s to be expected from a senior who’s played in 41 of 42 games in a four-year career. It’s by no coincidence that Morris, one of the toughest players now anchoring a new-look Penn State defense, is also its smallest.
Officially listed at 5-foot-8, 186 pounds, Morris is not to be taken lightly. He’s a competitor through-and-through, born and raised in Washington, D.C., but trained and groomed to be the football player he is in Greenbelt, Md.
Morris picked up football as a 42-pound youngster who wanted to play for a local youth football team, the Peppermill Pirates. But Roman had to sign a waiver because his son was lighter than 65 pounds.
Roman, who played college football at St. Paul, for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ practice squad and became a hall-of-famer with the Central Penn Piranha semi-pro team, signed the paper without thinking twice.
“I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to kill two birds with one stone,” Roman said. ‘I’m going to teach him how to be tough. And I’m going to teach him how to play as a small guy with a chip on his shoulder.’”
In the Penn State players’ lounge, three days before Morris and his teammates will suit up for the Temple game, the cornerback grins before he admits it:
“With my size, I don’t want to say I’m the shortest on the team — which I am — but with my size and everything I’ve been through since I’ve been here, that meant the most just because I know I earned it.”
Morris is talking about the Jim O’Hora award he won at halftime of April’s Blue-White game. The trophy is presented annually to the Penn State defensive player who has shown the most improvement from the previous season.
While his height may not be considered elite when expected to cover athletes usually much taller than him, Morris hasn’t let his size become a limiting characteristic. His goal was to achieve elite status as soon as he entered high school at Eleanor Roosevelt High.
It wasn’t uncommon for one of the smallest players on the team to step into then-head coach Rick Houchens’ office and vow to work his way onto a major college football team and get his picture on Houchens’ office walls. The Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan Area bred players like Derrick Williams, Derrick Burgess, Jermaine Lewis and Matt Rice — all of whom graduated from Eleanor Roosevelt. Handfuls of others from the school and surrounding area went on to lead impressive college careers and achieve notable status in the NFL.
Houchens wasn’t convinced. After all, Morris hadn’t suited up yet. He did have an already-solid football foundation to add to, however.
As a middle schooler, Morris had been working with his father and Aazaar Abdul-Rahim, the head coach of Friendship Collegiate Academy who also runs Positive Choices, a non-profit football instructional program.
“He was the guy who kind of took Steph to the next level,” Roman Morris said. “I thought, as a seventh, eighth grade kid, let’s bring him along slow. You know what Aazaar said? ‘I don’t think we have time.’”
In no time, Morris was starring for Houchens and later, during his senior year, for Tom Green, who took over the team after Houchens moved on to Archbishop Carroll.
Morris was a three-year captain and soon found himself being recruited by major Division-I programs. He was ready to pledge to the University of Florida, but reconsidered after seeing Penn State’s initial full-stadium white out game against Notre Dame in 2007.
“I saw it on TV and said, ‘Whoa, Florida doesn’t have anything on Penn State,’” Morris said.
After the Rose Bowl, Morris committed to the Nittany Lions, following a recruiting period spent exchanging calls with Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson.
Johnson told Morris he could see the field right away, as the Nittany Lions were low on experienced corners at the time. Morris enrolled and played right away in every game his freshman season. He earned a spot on the Big Ten all-freshman first team for his efforts.
Morris was coming off his sophomore season at Penn State — his best yet wherein he started 10 games — and was going through his typical regimen at home when an unexpected mentor happened on the scene.
Troy Vincent had heard the name Roman Morris and about the defensive back academy he had started in Greenbelt. Vincent decided to check out one of Morris’s seminars. The former NFL great with the Philadelphia Eagles, and later with the Buffalo Bills and Washington Redskins, was intrigued and enrolled his son, Troy Jr.
Ever since, Vincent — one of the NFL’s premier cornerbacks throughout his 14-year career — has worked one-on-one with Stephon Morris every time Morris comes home from Penn State.
“You just grow fond of a young man, where as I say, the student wanted to be taught,” Vincent said. “The more he gave me, the more I gave him.”
Vincent didn’t see many bad habits in Morris’s game. Ready to enter his junior year as one of Penn State’s more experienced cornerbacks, Morris was eager to soak up as much as he could before spring camp opened.
“You see a corner that is mentally tough,” Vincent said. “Many will line him up and say he’s on the small side. When you don’t have the measurables that someone would look at at the next level but have all the other intangibles, you’ve got to be fundamentally right. I saw a kid with a lot of heart and a burning desire to be better.”
Morris’ junior year started out on a high, but was soon headed for a low.
Going up against his friends and teammates D’Anton Lynn and Chaz Powell in camp, who were also looking to lock down starting jobs, Morris was in the best shape of his life and his natural confidence was at an all-time high.
While he had started 10 games the previous season, Morris had typically been a spot starter. He was not notified by his coaches of his gameday status until shortly before kickoff most weeks. He made a point to let former defensive coordinator Tom Bradley know he expected to be in the mix as a full-time starter.
“I went to him in the summer time before training camp and was like, ‘I just want a fair shake at it. I really don’t care who the starter is right now’ — because I was second team going into training camp — ‘whoever practices the best in training camp should have that job,’” Morris said.
Although Morris thought he outperformed all the defensive backs in camp, he wasn’t told whether or not he’d be starting or even used as the defense’s additional corner in its nickel package.
Morris said he called Bradley shortly before the season opener to inquire about his role. Bradley told him Lynn and Powell would start due to their seniority.
“When he said that, that took me by surprise,” Morris said. “At that point I didn’t care if they were seniors or not. I felt like I had paid my dues. I did everything that they told me to do. I just wanted a fair shake.”
Morris was dejected. After starting the majority of his sophomore season, he had been relegated to back-up status, playing less and in mop-up minutes just weeks after his best offseason to that point.
He confided in his teammates who were suddenly ahead of him on the depth chart.
“And they did a hell of a job keeping my head straight,” Morris said. “Me and D’Anton Lynn, we were very close and he knew something wasn’t right with me. Chaz Powell, he was my roommate during away games and home games and he was pretty much like, ‘Man, I don’t think it’s fair the way they’re treating you. Keep your head tight, we’re going to need you at some point this season.’”
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The lack of communication upset Morris, who planned to seek a transfer after last season’s TicketCity Bowl.
He harbors no ill-will toward his former coaches, but he felt like he wouldn’t get an opportunity to start after what had transpired. He felt like he wasn’t being taken seriously as a player who could contribute on every defensive down.
For the first time in his career, the politely-cocky Morris’s confidence was shaken.
“I was starting to question myself at that time,” Morris said. “I was like, ‘Maybe this football thing isn’t for me. Maybe I’m just not what they’re looking for. Maybe I just can’t play this game?’”
The lines of self-questioning slowed and eventually stopped after newly hired Bill O’Brien, Ted Roof and Johnson — a coach Morris said he never lost trust in — met with him.
They told him the same thing the previous staff did — it would be an open competition and the best player would win the starting job. When O’Brien released the depth chart this summer, Morris had finally earned the starting spot with months to prepare for it.
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A bookshelf in the corner of Rick Houchens’ office at Archbishop Carroll High School in D.C. holds pictures of former players who went on to football greatness. Houchens would love to hang them up, but he’s run out of room. This office is smaller than the one Morris stood in eight years ago at Eleanor Roosevelt High and set in motion his own football plans.
The lack of wall space hasn’t stopped Houchens from hanging up two pictures of Morris. He’s in Penn State blue and white in one and in all white in another.
“I always call him my adopted son,” Houchens said. “All these guys, the ones that really take it and sponge it and take the right way and grab all they can get, those are the ones that you see the results on. They always become special.”
Morris will try to take his game one step further today. While he thinks he’s played pretty well three games into his final season, he knows he has more to prove and accomplish.
“Once I get started, man, it’s going to be scary,” Morris said. “Right now I feel in some type of way that my game’s about to raise to a whole different level and that’s the way it should feel.” Opponents are feeling it.
University of Virginia wide receiver Darius Jennings told Morris on the field two weeks ago: “Yo, man. I had a lot of fun on that island.”
Jennings, the Cavaliers leading receiver, finished with five catches but was kept out of the end zone.
“That took me by storm,” Morris said. “That was a hell of a compliment.”
Morris finally has a defined a role, one that he’s hoping to expand starting today.
He wants to start booking trips to Morris Island, a place where Morris is the lone employee, shadowing wide receivers and shutting down passing attacks. He’ll get physical. He’ll be in his opponent’s faces all day, at the line of scrimmage and down the field. He’ll talk some smack, oftentimes speaking for his teammates who love him for his play — and his words.
“I feel like if I’m not holding back, then I’m not being myself,” Morris, whose teammates have consistently called him a leader, said. “Guys like Michael Mauti, (Michael) Zordich, those are our true captains, I feel. I lead the secondary. They lead the team. That’s a big difference.”
If asked, Morris can cook for them, too.